. . .

Failing towards Freedom : Brooks Adams, 1

Since the capitulation of Paris the soldier has tended to sink more and more into a paid official, receiving his orders from financiers with his salary, without being allowed a voice even in questions involving peace and war. The same fate has overtaken the producing classes; they have failed to maintain themselves, and have become subjects of the possessors of hoarded wealth. Although the conventions of popular government are still preserved, capital is at least as absolute as under the Caesars, and, among capitalists, the money-lenders form an aristocracy. Debtors are in reality powerless, because of the extension of that very system of credit which they invented to satisfy their needs. Although the volume of credit is gigantic, the basis on which it rests is so narrow that it may be manipulated by a handful of men. [...] The aristocracy which wields this autocratic power is beyond attack, for it is defended by a wage-earning police, by the side of which the legions were a toy; a police so formidable that, for the first time in history, revolt is hopeless and is not attempted. The only question which preoccupies the ruling class is whether it is cheaper to coerce or to bribe.
- The Law of Civilization and Decay: An Essay on History
by Brooks Adams (1895-6)

Brooks Adams never set "The Law" in a single line of Greek and arithmetic; his wife's suggested title was The Path to Hell: A Story Book. He thumps out a simple enough pattern, though.

History describes the inverse relationship of two emotions: Fear and Greed. ("That's not where I want to be.") As a population centralizes, Fear becomes less important, Greed more. The power (or status or survival he makes no distinction) of an individual (or "organism", "type", "breed", "race" he makes no distinction) in any community (or "culture", "civilization", "nation", "race" he makes no distinction) is determined by whether Fear or Greed has the ascendancy. Military heroes and priests rule the Fearful; capitalists rule the Greedy. As Greed accelerates, the increasingly capitalistic community becomes dependent on cheaper external goods and labor. Eventually this leads to collapse, dispersion, and Fear.

The leading indicators (or the sole engines he's vague) of cultural change are control of financial exchange and access to the units of exchange.

  1. The Roman empire rose and conquered under the banner of forced high-interest credit, and declined under the same. Pax Romana was just another name for trade deficits and agricultural ruin: "Economic competition became free, land tended to concentrate in fewer and fewer hands, and this land was worked by eastern slaves, who reduced the wages of labour to the lowest point at which the human being can survive."
  2. The Empire moved to Constantinople to follow the center of international trade, where exchange could be balanced. Collapse of the Western empire brought the Italian peasantry immediate relief.
  3. As decentralization of Western Europe progressed and technology was lost, the money value of the miracle rose. Which eventually led to the Crusades, which eventually led back to economic recentralization.
  4. The Renaissance? The Crusades diverted money from Byzantimum towards Italy. "Placed between the masterpieces of the East and West, and having little imagination of his own, the Florentine banker conceived the idea of combining the two systems and embellishing them in a cheap and showy manner...."
  5. As the power of capital advanced, it brought about the Protestant Reformation. A personal relationship with God is cheaper than miracles purchased through His licensed agent.

Follow the money: Rome plundered Europe and the Near East. The merchants plundered Rome. The Church plundered Europe. Italy plundered Constantinople. Portugal stole the Indies trade from Italy. Spain plundered the New World. The Dutch stole the ocean trade from Spain. Improved technology re-centered trade in England. England plundered India. Germany plundered France. Bankers plundered everyone.

So it seems to be a habit with us. What makes Adams's account most impressively legalistic is his tone, the attorney's habit of argument by inevitability. "She had no choice but to pull the trigger." "You have no choice but to find her guilty." "The Knights Templar might as well have argued with gravitation." "That ostentatious, sordid, and cowardly race, being better adapted, rose to dominance."

... to be continued ...


"a habit with us" - Seeing as how they've truncated your sense of us-ness down to somewhat minus the last 3 millenia, with an unspoken codicil that any pre-our-history human lives were larval and inconsequent, like indigenes generally, even the useful ones, it might get more toward the actual analysis of motivation to say "this here us".
Fear and Greed are the driving wheels of this particular clot of this particular primate spooge, what we are as a race, or specie, is rather larger than what passes for history now.

I see where you're coming from and I'm getting there, although I can't blame you if you're tired of waiting. I meant this first part as summary, not as endorsement. (I wonder how many "Little Nell must die" letters were sent to Dickens.)

. . .

Failing towards Freedom : Brooks Adams, 2

All this appreciably before Max Weber or Oswald Spengler.... It's tempting to say Brooks Adams was ahead of his time, except he hits anyone's time on his face.

Despite its recent crisis, the 1895 American elite wasn't in the mood for anti-imperialist pessimism. And neither were Marxists, really; although Adams thought capitalism incapable of avoiding civilization-shattering crises, he also thought humanity incapable of avoiding capitalism. We weren't heading for the dictatorship of the proletariat. We were heading for anarchy and subjection by fresher capitalists.

After the Great War, Spengler's race-mysticism was found more interesting than Adams's materialism. As late as 1944, the New English Weekly could complain that "the emphasis it lays on the economic factor" conflicted with "Otto Sieck's thesis that character changes are brought about by miscegenation."

But although Adams claimed wealth determined which representatives of which races ended up on top, he still expressed himself in racial reifications. This account of globalization is likely to be found distasteful by most fans of Hardt & Negri:

First, inventions from the East facilitated trade; then, the perfection of weapons of attack made police possible, and individual bravery unnecessary; on this followed the abasement of the martial and exaltation of the economic type; and finally that intense acceleration of movement by machinery supervened, which, in annihilating space, has destroyed the protection that the costly races long enjoyed against the competition of simpler organisms. [...] For nearly a century the inventions of Hargreaves, of Crompton, of Cartwright, and of Watt, enabled Lancashire to supply Bombay and Calcutta with fabrics, as, in the seventeenth century, Surat and Calicut had supplied London, and this superiority appeared assured until Orientals should acquire the momentum necessary for machinery. One effect in Europe was the rapid increase of a population congregated in towns, and bearing a marked resemblance to the "humiliores" of Rome in their disinclination for war. True to their instincts, the adventurers ever quickened their movements, ever extended the sphere of their enterprises, and, finally, just as the Second Empire verged upon its fall, they opened the Suez Canal in 1869. The consequences of this great engineering triumph have probably equalled in gravity the establishment of the gold standard, but the two phenomena had this marked difference. The producers saw their danger and resisted to the utmost the contraction of the currency, whereas the Canal was a case of suicide. Thenceforward grain, raised by the most enduring labour of the world, could be thrown without limit on the European market, and, agricultural competition once established, industrial could only be a question of time.

Even on its own terms the book's a mess, unable to resist a good torture scene anytime or anywhere, and digressing spectacularly into the vices of the Tudors.

Its own terms are what interest me.

... to be continued ...


Character changes are brought about by miscegnation. Also by adherence to racial-purity laws. Also by celibacy. Also by promiscuity. Also by tedious list-making. The character of those changes may be more of an issue.

"The character of" as in "The nature of" or as in "The person effected by"? If the latter, I agree. The characters of the miscegnator or tedious list-maker may be changed by their experiences, but not the characters of their descendents.

Oh but of course. Though cast in more subtle light than our dull gross vision has power to see. You mean predictable intentional change I think. Everything works changes on everything else. The glockenspiel effects the timpani, in its way, though we'll never hear it, still it does.

. . .

Failing towards Freedom : Brooks Adams, 3

Early Darwinian historians simply swapped Nature's will in for God's: Nature evolved homo sapiens, and then Nature evolved late nineteenth-century Anglo-Americans, and now it's just a matter of mopping up the kitchen.

Brooks Adams knew better. Biological evolution describes a process, not a project; by analogy, any rules governing human culture would continue to grind through the Gilded Age. Anyone who thought they'd reached the end of history hadn't understood history.

Relinquishing the throne of creation freed Adams to found a different lineage of errors.

Take, for example, his assumption that biology and culture conserve a constant quantifiable "energy" which is divvied out across each generation. Or his asides about a force of history which can no more be argued with than gravitational acceleration. In both cases, he seems to misunderstand evolution as (singular) survival of the (winner-take-all) fittest under a (singular) law rather than as an intention-free account of species diversification. He mistakes Darwin for Newton.

He's hardly alone. Because technology depends on reliably replicable results, non-scientists tend to picture science as a matter of finding trustworthy laws and formulas. But that doesn't cover even all laboratory sciences: Medical and psychological journals describe barely distinguishable correlations rather than universally valid laws, and the pressures of research funding encourage flexibility in what's considered significant. In the twentieth century, physics itself became probabilistic.

Most drastically, the characterization doesn't cover historical science. Historical sciences such as geology and evolutionary biology study contingencies, not eternal verities. What makes them scientific are the materiality of their problems, their evidence, and their suggested explanations.

Darwin's problem was the appearance of new species over time. His solution was divergent descent driven by material means.

What's the historian's problem? It doesn't seem to be divergence. Like later scientizing historians, Adams rummaged through the polymorphic transtemporal promiscuity of human culture and found cycles. But evolution isn't cyclical.

Biologists in the tradition of Darwin should not speak of the coming into effect of selection if:

1. Already disappeared characters suddenly re-appear in subsequent generations (= false negative selection).
2. Characters which seem to have been positively “selected” during ontogeny never re-appear in subsequent generations (= false positive selection).

Usually, genes, genomes, characters, individuals, populations, and species never do come back once they have been negatively selected, and that is eliminated by Darwinian selection. This is the very simple, but fundamental essence of Darwin’s idea of “natural selection” which, in that respect, was a clearly materialist one....

The situation in operant learning – and, by the way, also in conceptual change in science and culture – is even more revealing. Cases 1 and 2 are in this view not rare exceptional cases, but rather they constitute more or less the rule.

- Adolf Heschl

And the problem's certainly not species. Although biological taxonomy may be fuzzy in spots, it's brick solid compared to what we grasp and mold from the blooming buzzing muck of human chronicles. So far as history is conceived as anything but a chronological collation of citations from unreliable sources, history is nothing but variations on observer bias, and misanthopic pessimism isn't enough to correct our myopia.

After only 110 years, Adams's biases seem sharp, and his (to him) clean abstractions seem (to us) to morph and merge. His towering account is stabilized by the shiftiness of its foundations. Even the line between "civilization" and "barbarism" is blurred by his fascination with torture.

Living where and when he did, Adams restricts the purview of his general law of "civilizations" to Western Europe and, occasionally, their colonies. The barbaric Crusaders contacted the Saracens at the peak of their civilization but what laws governed that civilization? China, Japan, Persia they were out there, we suppose; unchanging, decadent....

Living where and when he did, Adams's idea of "economy" focused on the movement of precious metals. But the "money" of contemporary wealth is as imaginary, as reliant on the power of orthodoxy and law, as any kingship or priesthood: a shared nightmare from which we're afraid to wake up.

Living where and when he did, Adams pictured religion and finance as opposite extremes. Protestantism had won because conscience is cheaper than icons. Taking what would seem and would continue to seem, among the elite, for some decades the natural next step, Henry Adams pointed out that "Atheism is still cheaper than reformed religion."

But then again Henry also pointed out that the leaders of the Catholic church appear to have accumulated more wealth than Luther, Calvin, and Fox. And then again, Brooks represents the Anglican capitalists who consolidated lands and lowered the value of productive labor as more economically evolved than the Puritan farmers who were thereby forced into exile. And then again, as the economic power of those exiles grew...?

Well, living where and when we do, none of it makes sense. If capitalism and religious faith were ever in conflict, they made up by the time of the Spanish Civil War. For those of us who've survived into the 21st century, it's hard to picture them as anything but allies. The age of expensive miracles isn't past. It's just that the expensive miracle cures consist of selfish murdering assholes getting to feel good about themselves. Taking the long view, though, is that really so novel?

And then there are his easy personifications of "race" and "breed". In their rush to scientize, even skeptics like Brooks and Henry Adams stayed blind to the flaws of these selectively weighted non-random outliers-scrubbed sample sets. They knew many more WASP millionaires than they knew Jewish bankers Jay Gould was as American as apples with razor blades. But that hardly registered, they'd known so few Jews who weren't bankers.

Maybe it wouldn't have mattered if they had. Young Louis Zukofsky's stubborn refusal of either "all you Jews" or "unlike most Jews" gambits rolled off Adams fan Ezra Pound with as little effect as every other non-artifactual experience. I'm-rubber-you're-glue is a hard game to lose.

* * *

The reader may wonder why I feel compelled to exhume and whump the peaceful corpse of Brooks Adams.

The point isn't he was an idiot. While he was alive he was smarter than me, possibly even as smart as you.

But now that he's dead, we have a bit of an edge. And I think this is a fairly common pattern.

Adams couldn't escape his time and place. That's not a mistake we've grown out of.

... to be concluded ...


misanthopic trees never bloom

. . .

Failing towards Freedom : Brooks Adams, 4

But simply because it is possible to model a process in Darwinian or quasi-Darwinian terms does not necessarily imply that it is useful to do so. Darwin himself invoked natural selection to explain the existence of adaptation in nature – a phenomenon which cries out for scientific explanation and was conspicuously lacking one until Darwin’s own theory. But in many of the recent attempts to discern Darwinian processes at work in other domains, for example, in the realm of human culture, there is no comparable phenomenon which clearly requires, but totally lacks, a proper causal explanation.
- Samir Okasha
We feel as though we ought to be able to tell the "story" of anything that changes over time like America, or the vertebrates. But the things about which we can tell stories must either possess individuality, or they must be prepared to have individuality and all it entails like ontogeny and closure imposed upon them by the force of narrative.
- Bob O'Hara
That may be, but it's all pretty unsatisfactory.
- Nora Charles

Given how blatantly history and culture don't map the concerns of evolutionary biology, what attracts humanists to the rhetoric of evolutionary biology?

Darwinian evolution proposed to solve an otherwise unexplained mystery. In contrast, human history has too many explanations.

Somehow, though, on close inspection, they always seem to dissolve into a mist of unknowables, tautologies, unlikelihoods, and impossibilities.

Miasma in, miasma out. History amalgamates human actions into a reasonable narrative; human actions aren't rational. We intuit causality and teleology from our own experience of agency. But, fast talker though it is, human agency never quite finishes explaining things. Its story doesn't hang together.

In response, we might cook the books: haute cuisine chefs such as Objectivists and behaviorists eviscerate, blanch, bone, shred, filter, and pipe experience into occasional lever pushes by a mascaraed Gary Cooper.

Or we might find some supplemental force to fill the gaps of decision: gods, God, demons, spells, universal dialectic, conflicting drives, false consciousness, interfering modules, the selfish genes of our extinct ancestors.... But in describing them as "forces", we've only shifted the burden of teleological paradox on to where we hope it can't be questioned further, like a subpoenaed CEO's The Girl.

The principled skeptical historian, like the English professor who's sick of literature, would like to sweep the tainted debris of personality out of sight. "Evolution" appeals as a magically unliftable materialist carpet. But its magic material is Emperor's New Cloth. The explanations offered by evolutionary biologists are usually presented as not-disproven; the explanations offered by historians usually aren't presented in disprovable terms. The carpet can't be lifted because there's nothing there. Nothing except that same irritating multiplying dust-bunny.

Satisfaction will not be received. The scratch is just the itch's way of making another itch.

... what startles me in these paragraphs is the self-satisfied assumption of the finality of my conclusions. I posit, as a fact not to be controverted, that our universe is an expression of an universal law, which the nineteenth century had discovered and could formulate.

During the past thirty years I have given this subject my best attention, and now I am so far from assenting to this proposition that my mind tends in the opposite direction. Each day I live I am less able to withstand the suspicion that the universe, far from being an expression of law originating in a single primary cause, is a chaos which admits of reaching no equilibrium, and with which man is doomed eternally and hopelessly to contend.

- "Preface to New Edition" of
The Emancipation of Massachussetts: The Dream and the Reality
by Brooks Adams (1919)


We (or our claustrophobia-enducing tiny little comment box) seem to have finally driven this dedicated reader round the bend:

This is fine and good mindwork. Excellent. It seems important for reasons I can't get my fingers on to recognize everything Darwinian movement happens to is already there. The growth medium having its own day in court, sort of thing.

And speaking of our comment box and evolution, today marks this primitive email-based response system's first instance of bot spam:

[Link removed] would any guy here do anything sexual with a girl in front of your friend Like your best friend? I don't know if I can do anything like that.
That evolution happens to stuff, that what is evolving is stuff that's been here since either:
a. an origin only describable by dogmatic mumbo-jumbo and requiring blind faith e.g. bigbang superstring fries-with-that; or,
b. It's always been here. If it's always been here, the room for conjecture as to further and as-yet unobserved attributes is very great.

Scott McLemee commented:

Come to think of it, the whole idea that each society consists of a certain mass of energy seems awfully Herbert Spencer-ish, and I'd bet the ranch that is where he got it. It takes some doing now, really, to grasp just how gigantic a figure Spencer was at the time.

Oddly, though, Spencer doesn't really show up in the Adams material I've read. (Henry Adams mentions him once in a late letter as an English affliction to match the German Kant and French Comte.) For whatever guesses are worth, I'd guess that the two brothers thought of him more as symptom of the times than as personal inspiration -- which, of course, doesn't rule out unacknowledged influence....


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